No matter how many times people say it, Merlin's not wholly an idiot.
He's reckless, clumsy, not very good with consequences, and enjoys sleeping in when he can, but mostly he's just a fool for Arthur and that spills out into everything else no matter how he tries to contain it.
They're in Arthur's chambers and the fire's lit and he's half done with the armour (which always smells of sweat and iron and blood no matter what he does to it, distinctly Arthur, and there's a place deep inside him still shaking in relief that a handful of berries had been enough.) His Royal Highness had spent the afternoon training his men until one ended up with a dislocated shoulder, then retired to pick listlessly at his dinner and stare into the ether.
His shoulders are bunched, and he's brooding like a wounded bear, but Merlin can't leave well enough alone.
"She won't stay angry forever," Merlin says, and Arthur's gaze snaps over to him like he'd forgotten Merlin was there.
"Pardon?" he asks, annoyed or playing deaf. Merlin is relentless.
"I said," Merlin tries to sound unconcerned. "She won't stay angry forever."
"Maybe it'd be better if she did," Arthur replies, brow furrowing briefly before it turns into a glare. "Not that it's any of your business."
Merlin ignores that, putting down the hauberk to move over to Arthur and elbow his shoulder lightly. "She won't, though."
It's like scratching a scab, picking at stitches (two activities Gaius has threatened to cut off his hands for doing incessantly.) Seeing Arthur miserable itches at something unnameable inside of him, but the only way to allay it is to injure himself. Arthur looks up at him, mouth quirked slightly as though to mask hope as scorn. But it's there in his eyes; has shone through since the jousting tournament though Merlin's the only one who's noticed. Merlin always notices Arthur.
"It doesn't matter," Arthur says finally, and Merlin hears: because she loves Lancelot, and Morgana, and even you more than she does me; because she's a servant, and I'm the King's son.
The echo of that last hangs unspoken in the air between them, and Merlin tries again. "D'you know what doesn't matter?" He smiles, and something in his face must catch Arthur's attention. "What anyone else thinks. Your feelings can't be denied, even if you can't act on them."
"You don't understand," says Arthur, oblivious to just how well Merlin understands, or pretending it. "I have responsibilities to the crown. To my people. I can't. My father could have her killed, just to teach me a lesson."
Would, Merlin thinks, not could, but on this he wisely stays silent. Instead he lets his hand fall on Arthur's shoulder, feels it relax under his touch, loves the way Arthur leans the slightest bit into it. "One day things will change," he says, "Because you can change them. Because you will–"
"When my father is dead, and I am King," says Arthur, voice cracking slightly on the first few words. "But I'm not– That isn't something I want to be ready for."
The words strike Merlin unintentionally, quick jabs to soft places. It is Arthur's destiny to rule Camelot, and Merlin aches for that time to come, fantasizes sometimes that one day he will stand at Arthur's side as something other than a servant. (An advisor. A friend. Sometimes, when none of it seems worth it, he allows himself to imagine something even closer than that.) For that dream to be truth, Uther must be dead, and while Merlin sometimes viciously wishes the King's time upon him the thought of what it would do to Arthur catches in his lungs like agony.
"Guess you'll just have to pine away until then," Merlin says with false cheer so that Arthur's eyes narrow and he pokes Merlin hard under the ribs and the tension breaks.
"I am not," states Arthur flatly, "Pining."
"Oh really? Because from where I'm standing, you are an absolute forest of pine."
"I am contemplating my feelings in a dashing and romantic manner."
"Romantic!" Merlin teases.
"Shut up, Merlin," says Arthur, and swats at him, gestures to the armor left abandoned. "Don't you have work to do?"
Merlin says: "Of course, sire," and the levity bright in his voice is no longer feigned. He picks up the links of chain, lets them pour through his hands like water. Polishing each one is a pain. Maybe, if he just turns his head a little… if he ducks his lips away from Arthur's line of sight and whispers softly–
"Oh, and Merlin."
Arthur's voice nearly scares him out of his skin. Merlin swallows half a spell and prays his face is clean of terror when he turns towards it quizzically. Arthur has a certain look about him, a hesitancy, his throat working while he tries to find the right words. Merlin hopes the Prince isn't going to thank him. Or worse, apologize.
"You know, of course, that just because you're my servant, doesn't mean–"
"Oh please don't," Merlin interrupts, pained. "If you start going on about how you think about me all the time, I'm taking you to Gaius."
Arthur's eyes widen a little, and he frowns. "What? That's not– I'm just saying, I don't mean you. When I– You're not like everyone else."
"You have no idea," Merlin mutters under his breath.
Arthur rolls his eyes and tightens his lips: "You're an idiot, Merlin," in the be-more-careful tone he reserves for after death-defying adventures. He pushes back his chair and stands. "Before you stumbled uselessly into my life I didn't even know servants could have opinions."
"Maybe you should stop thinking of Gwen and I as exceptions to the rule, then, eh?" Merlin says.
"Or, for that matter," Arthur continues, walking over to him, "That they could be completely rude and regularly speak far above their station–"
"–Totally useless at their jobs,–"
Merlin brandishes the chain-mail he's been cleaning at him pointedly.
"–And I'd still be rather fond of them," Arthur finishes abruptly, and neither of them really know where to go from there: Arthur because he's got that awkward, stubborn expression on and because Merlin could swear they already had this conversation back in the forest, with Arthur yelling that his father wouldn't let him hang around with servants and have a lark unless he was also going to use them as personal footstools. If not in so many words. In fact, maybe it was just Merlin who'd been having that conversation, in which case, bugger.
It takes him a moment to realize he hasn't stopped grinning. "You're such a prat," he says at last, and hugs him.
Arthur's stiff in his arms for a moment before he capitulates, bringing his arms up and around Merlin, thumping him soundly on the back – very manly, except Merlin doesn't let go, just buries his head in Arthur's warm shoulder and waits for everything to be all right again.
"You idiot," Arthur says softly into Merlin's hair, breath tickling the curve of his neck. Merlin just smiles, and holds him, and privately agrees.